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After 2 Years of Trying, Tourism Commission Gives Up

December 10, 1987|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

After trying for nearly 20 months to pull together support for a countywide tourism plan, the Ventura County Gold Coast Commission on Tourism has fallen apart.

Formed in 1986 by the county Board of Supervisors, the 12-member commission announced last week that it will disband, thwarted by the refusal of most cities to help fund a $78,000 marketing study on the subject.

"We've been sitting around for two years having meetings, and we're nowhere," Russ Smith, executive director of the City of Ventura's Visitors and Convention Bureau, said at last Thursday's commission meeting. "We're right back where we started."

Such frustrations, say commission members, are indicative of the many hurdles they face in trying to propel Ventura County out of the farm leagues of tourism.

Although the commission next month will recommend the formation of a new agency to develop a countywide promotional campaign, tourism officials say they are still battling resistance that ranges from no-growth sentiments to the lack of a commercial airport to the limited horizons of some city governments.

Despite a tourist economy that generated $316 million countywide in 1985, the last year for which figures are available, the absence of a coordinated effort has caused the county to fall far short of its potential as an eventual tourist mecca, tourism officials say.

"We've got to get rid of a lot of our parochial thinking and start working together," said Rob Varley, executive director of the Oxnard Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We're just babes in tourism, right now."

As far as some city officials are concerned, however, refusing to fund a tourism study was less parochial than it was practical.

"The city has very few tourist attractions and motels," said Larry Davis, Camarillo's assistant city manager. "We didn't see that we would derive any benefit from participating."

Similarly in Thousand Oaks, city officials were concerned that, because of the tag "Gold Coast," any endeavors might disproportionately benefit the coastal cities, particularly Ventura and Oxnard.

"It seemed like it was more a western Ventura kind of deal," said Ed Johnduff, Thousand Oaks' economic development coordinator. "The Gold Coast aspect is more related to where the ocean is than over the hill here in the Conejo Valley."

And in Ojai, city officials were not sure that curbing tourism in its infancy was such a bad idea in the first place.

"We are struggling to handle the tourists we already have," Ojai City Manager Geoff Grote said. "There's just been no consensus reached in this community as to whether we want to solicit more tourists or not."

For those in the tourism business, however, the increasing competitiveness of the convention and visitor trade has added urgency to the formation of a coordinated, countywide plan.

As an indication of the growing demands to organize, the number of local tourism bureaus in the state has grown from 26 to 41 in the last five years, according to figures from the Western Assn. of Convention and Visitor Bureaus.

"You have to be a little more aggressive and a little sharper than your next-door neighbor," said Dan Ellsworth, executive director of the Newport Beach Conference and Visitors Bureau, an agency that was revamped two months ago and given a $550,000 infusion. "Otherwise, you will lose."

Like boosters in Newport Beach, those in Ventura County have set their sights primarily on the greater Los Angeles market, from weekend visitors who might tour the Channel Islands National Park to shoppers who might drive from the San Fernando Valley to the regional mall in Thousand Oaks.

"We have to learn to crawl before we can walk," Varley said.

The competition closest to home is some of the stiffest. In Santa Barbara, the Conference and Visitors Bureau spent about $800,000 last year in its effort to lure an estimated 5 million tourists, many of whom likely pass through Ventura County without even stopping, local officials say.

In comparison, the Oxnard tourism bureau has an annual budget of $356,000 and Ventura receives $300,000, both of which, like the other bureaus, are funded by their cities' hotel tax.

While the combined budgets of Oxnard and Ventura begin to approach that of their neighbor to the north, Santa Barbara enjoys certain advantages that ensure the city will retain its status as an acknowledged tourist mecca, say tourist leaders there.

Its name is known throughout the world, conveying images of a lush seaside playground for the rich. The presidential ranch is in the hills nearby, and a soap opera dubbed "Santa Barbara" titillates viewers with the impossible troubles suffered by the rich and the very rich.

"It's become a part of American imagery," said John Epstein, a spokesman in the Santa Barbara tourism bureau. "Santa Barbara has become a synonym for the real good life."

If Ventura County is Santa Barbara's slightly plainer sister, many merchants say that local attractions need all the more support.

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